With India battered by Covid-19 pandemic, an American data intelligence firm found in its survey that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval ratings fell to its lowest in May. Recent developments in West Bengal give credence to this survey as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee seems to have won the political slugfest.
Mamata Banerjee, despite losing her seat in the recent assembly election, has emerged as the most potent challenger to PM Narendra Modi. This is, however, not the first time that an essentially regional or state leader has taken on PM Narendra Modi triggering speculation about a national alternative.
Narendra Modi emerged on the national scene in the second half of 2013 with most political observers already dismissing the Congress’s chance of survival in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The election results were on predicted lines.
Curiously, the buzz of finding an alternative was already placed in national political space. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal, current Delhi chief minister, was seen as the rallying point especially after his decision to contest from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh against Narendra Modi, who also stood from a second seat at Vadodara in his home state Gujarat.
The first Narendra Modi wave saw the BJP attaining single-party majority in the Lok Sabha after 30 years. However, the election results were also credited to TINA (there is no alternative) factor. The Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi had already been dismissed by political pundits.
Arvind Kejriwal came back to reckoning in 2015 when his AAP crushed the BJP and pulverised the Congress in the Delhi Assembly election. A series of political clashes followed between the Kejriwal government and the Modi government. The current Mamata Banerjee versus Narendra Modi fight looks like a mirror image.
Like Arvind Kejriwal, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar too engineered a coalition to hold back Narendra Modi’s election juggernaut in Bihar in 2015. But Arvind Kejriwal generated more alternative waves.
The stream of thought that Arvind Kejriwal could be an alternative to Narendra Modi at the Centre was dammed after 2017 Punjab Assembly election as the AAP failed to win the polls, and changed political tack to retain Delhi in 2020.
Before Rahul Gandhi took the alternative centrestage for 2019 Lok Sabha election with Rafale deal allegations and campaign catchphrase “chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman is a thief), former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu was the rallying point for several months.
Chandrababu Naidu had quit the Narendra Modi government in March 2018. He led a campaign to build an alternative coalition reaching out to Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Nationalist Congress Party supremo Sharad Pawar, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati among others.
The TDP on record went on to say Chandrababu Naidu was “an alternative” and “a threat” to Narendra Modi in 2019 Lok Sabha election. Curiously, while Chandrababu Naidu campaigned against Narendra Modi to build an alternative front, he said he had been offered the prime ministerial post twice in 1996 and 1997.
But Chandrababu Naidu lost his political relevance as an alternative to Narendra Modi at the Centre after his party’s crushing defeat in 2019 Lok Sabha election and Andhra Pradesh Assembly polls.
Sharad Pawar has been an eternal third fronter, seeking to have an alternative political coalition to lead and become its leader. He quit the Congress opposing party president Sonia Gandhi. Many believe that had Sharad Pawar stayed with the Congress, he could have been Sonia Gandhi’s choice for prime minister instead of Manmohan Singh in 2004.
The NCP had, in fact, offered Sharad Pawar as a possible ‘secular’ alternative to Narendra Modi in 2014 Lok Sabha election. In his interview to India Today, Sharad Pawar dropped enough hint for an alternative space at the Centre.
Later, his trusted aide Praful Patel had said, “If there was a situation where there is a consensus on the issue…then Sharad Pawar will be certainly ready (to become prime minister).”
Sharad Pawar picked up that thread ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But poll results showed a stronger Modi wave in 2019. Sharad Pawar, however, created fresh buzz with Maharashtra Assembly election later in 2019 and designing a coalition to shock Modi-fied BJP.
For long, Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi shared a good rapport. After victory in 2014, Narendra Modi as prime minister praised Mamata Banerjee in Parliament in his maiden reply to the debate on the Motion of Thanks on the President’s address.
PM Narendra Modi lauded Mamata Banerjee for working “hard to bring West Bengal out of the evils of 35 years”. Mamata Banerjee had earlier in 2012 praised Narnedra Modi’s leadership saying, “Gujarat has been nurtured and it is progressing.”
The bonhomie was such that it got Rahul Gandhi to question Mamata Banerjee over her decision to accompany Narendra Modi to Bangladesh in 2015 after having snubbed the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the same subject.
Things turned upside down between Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee in the 2016 West Bengal Assembly election. The BJP, though, polled lesser votes than it had in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but it was clear that the party was going to be Mamata Banerjee’s challenger in West Bengal.
During the 2016 polls, PM Narendra Modi had raised Sarada scam and Narada bribery sting while accusing the Mamata Banerjee government of corruption, and saying that the Kolkata flyover tragedy was “God’s message to the people” of Bengal to save the state from her Trinamool Congress.
Mamata Banerjee returned the favour addressing Narendra Modi as “expiry babu” who needed a “slap of democracy” and compared him with Ravan, the demon king mentioned in the Ramayana.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election and 2021 West Bengal Assembly polls only saw heightening of the acerbic posers and charges at one another. Mamata Banerjee’s personal loss and the BJP’s resounding defeat in the Bengal election have only fuelled the political fights between the two leaders.
With Mamata Banerjee appearing to be outsmarting Narendra Modi, the noise for an alternative in national politics is back in currency.
PM Narendra Modi has, however, remained the most popular politician in India since 2014 despite swings in approval ratings in surveys conducted by different agencies.
In the latest instance, data collected by the American firm Morning Consult show that PM Narendra Modi’s net approval ratings remained above other global leaders.
Mamata Banerjee or any other politician may fall short of becoming true alternative in national politics until they go past Narendra Modi’s approval ratings count.